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If there is one word that is most bandied about by serious Scotch whisky drinkers, it is likely to be "peat." The ancient, partially decayed vegetable matter is essential to the making of Scotch. It flavors the local water used in distillation, and peat smoke is employed to dry malted barley, the raw material of Scotch whisky. The result is a characteristic and much sought-after smokiness. Islay has no shortage of peat. And for that reason, its distilleries produce some of the boldest, most complex single malt whiskies in the world.

On the afternoon of the second day, having crossed the Sound of Islay, we finally came ashore at the first distillery on our sea route. Bunnahabhain, pronounced boo-na-ha-venn, was founded in 1881 and has a reputation for a milder, sweeter whisky than some of the more pungent and peaty single malts on the southern shore. Leaving our kayaks on the beach, we ate a quick lunch and joined a tour with mash man Andrew Brown.

All Scotch whisky, Brown explained, begins with malted barley. The dried malt is milled and placed in a huge vat, or mash tun, with heated springwater. This mashing process extracts the sugars from the malt "and creates a clear, fermentable liquid called wort, which is drained into wash backs. At Bunnahabhain, the wash backs are enormous wooden vats made of Douglas fir. Within these vats yeast is added and the wort ferments into a distillable fluid, part water and part alcohol, called the wash. Brown opened a hatch into one of these vats and let us take a careful sniff: The fumes were eye-watering. The wash then travels to a set of stills—huge, pear-shaped copper devices that look like they came out of the engine room of the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The first distillation results in a liquid—usually about 21 percent alcohol—called low wines. This is distilled a second time, then shunted into a brass, glass-fronted case called the spirit safe. The first and final parts of a run (called the foreshots and the feints, respectively) are too unrefined to be put into casks, so a stillman diverts them back for yet another distillation. The good stuff lies in the middle portion, or the "heart" of a run, which, under the expert eye of the stillman, is directed into the spirit receiver to be casked and aged.

Within the dim warehouse at Bunnahabhain stood row upon row of casks of aging whisky: There were some 22,000 on the premises. In order to qualify as Scotch whisky, the spirit must be aged in an oak cask for a minimum of three years; this mellows the whisky, reducing its alcohol content and imparting color and flavor from the wood. Within the sealed casks, over time, a small portion of the liquid evaporates; this lost whisky has long been known as the angels’ share. "It takes three years and three days to make whisky," said Brown. "Three days to go from the mash to the cask, and three years from the cask to the bottle."

After the tour, we gathered with Brown in the small shop and sipped his handiwork. The 12-year-old was smooth, mild, faintly sweet, and nutty. For generations, Brown said, all employees of the distillery received a dram of whisky first thing in the morning, a dram at lunch, and a dram at closing time. A dram in this context was not a token sip, but a quarter-pint of whisky, or four shots. This policy was finally discontinued in 1982. "I knew one man who worked for Bunnahabhain for 30 years," said Brown with only half a smile, "and he couldn’t remember the first 15 of ’em."

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